The blue hedgehog is back! He goes very fast in his latest instalment, Sonic Frontiers! And lots of fans – naturally – think it looks terrible! The scepticism is understandable. But having gone hands-on with it at Summer Geoff Fest, I’d like to pose a counter argument: the game needs to be played. Just seeing it with your eyeballs doesn’t do it justice. Yes, it’s a weird departure for Sonic, but I am here for it.
Traditionally, Sonic games burst with colour and energy. Pulsating music helps drive you through levels that spin and twist, as you strive to reach the finish line in as short a time as possible. But from roughly 30 minutes with Sonic Frontiers’ tutorial bits and open world introduction, it sets the titular hog on a very different trajectory indeed. And this starts with the music, which – aside from one slice I can’t talk about yet – is more melancholic than cheery; in fact if anything it’s largely non-existent. The first thing you’ll notice when whizzing around is the patter of your bowling shoes or the whoosh as you slap the boost button. Occasionally some tinkly piano steps in to fill the void, but for the most part, the atmosphere resembles more of a wilderness than a theme park.
The game’s opening area is reminiscent of Death Stranding’s apocalyptic US, with Sonic giving off the aura of modded Norman Reedus who’s been plonked in this sea of green and grey. Scan the horizon and you’ll spot towers off in the distance with rails and balloons leading up to their summit. Rings and booster pads not only let you traverse things a bit more quickly, but also guide you to the next point of interest. Exploration sees you glide across the wilderness and bounce between bitesize Sonic stages, all to get cogs and keys and hearts. You’ll need these to unlock portals to new areas and big doors and to help free your mate Amy from a weird digital cage.
Zipping about is a lot of fun, as Sonic’s sense of speed outshines a hint of stiffness in his joints. You can now boost in mid-air for nice glides and there’s still great satisfaction in stringing together balloon pops, rail-shifts, and platform-hops. Plus, there’s just about enough to keep you occupied, with puzzles dotted around that unlock sections of the map if you complete them. Granted, they were super simple – and that’s coming from someone who’s notoriously terrible at puzzles – but will almost certainly ramp up in complexity as you progress. And there’s a lot of spiraling into the sky as you stumble into floating platforms and curly rails. My concern really lies in overall variety; namely whether we’ll see other types of environments or if green and grey is largely all the game has to offer. After a few hours of going fast, I’d want to move on to a different biome, that’s for sure.
Still, green and grey did surprise more than bore. One major highlight came in the form of a Shadow Of The Colossus-esque boss fight with a massive, futuristic robot plucked straight from Destiny. You’d need to wait for it to slam its arms down, then use them as ramps to propel yourself up to its head which harboured three weak spots. It was neat! Mainly because the fight wasn’t a straight duel to the death but a cleverly constructed platforming challenge too. The boss’s arms generated red and blue rings: red pushed you back, while blue boosted you forwards. You had to dodge red, slide into blue, then make sure to ramp off his arms, land safely, sprint up his torso, hop onto his noggin, and finally dislodge his braincells with a few choice kicks.
Another fight forced Sonic to think outside of the usual spins and kicks. To defeat smaller enemies that looked like walking buzzsaws required Sonic’s magic trail ability, which lets you connect a kind of… hedgehog speed discharge, in a variety of ways for a variety of effects. Forming a circle of this Sonic guff is great at knocking the buzzsaws into the air and revealing their vulnerable little leggies. I bet it makes a great moisturiser too, like snail ooze.
Granted, the bigger bad was a bit janky. Sometimes you’d rocket up his torso and he’d suddenly fling you off for no apparent reason, while the red and blue ring fiasco felt a touch imprecise. The demo build I played was steeped in jank in general, to be honest, with distant rails and rings frequently popping into shot, and the overall aesthetic subject to a grainy haze. It all married together to form a rather bizarre Sonic experience, which veered between tinges of emptiness in its atmosphere and barren landscape, to spikes of platforming delight.
There’s a lot of talk floating around that the game is simply SEGA importing Sonic into a Breath Of The Wild-like template. From what I played, though, Frontiers strikes me as something a lot simpler: a chance to let Sonic loose in bigger 3D zones that aren’t races to the finish. It’s more Super Mario Odyssey in how it overrides a collectathon’s mundanity with a mixture of fun platforming challenges that utilise the best of Sonic’s speed. Though that won’t be much of a comfort to Sonic fans who do just want a race to the finish. He’s a fast hog, after all.
And don’t get me wrong, the world I witnessed wasn’t as spritely or characterful or dense as Marios’ offerings – I mean, that’s an almost impossible task. I’m just saying the game seems to be structured in a similar way. There’s jank too, sure, but I remain optimistic the full release will continue to surprise and play better than it looks. And that’s helped by a bit of the demo I can’t talk about. Stay tuned for my thoughts on that soon.